The School Choice Questions We Should Be Asking

The education establishment has done an amazing job of creating the perfect “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario when arguing against school choice.  We’ll remind you of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale that raises questions about believing our own two eyes or buying into a pretense that is being sold to us.  In the story, the emperor is fond of clothes and two “weavers” enter his capital, telling him they will create a magnificent suit for him that would be invisible to all except for the most enlightened. And the suit is invisible to everyone because, of course, it doesn’t actually exist.  The weavers have the emperor and all of his subjects so convinced that there is a wonderful new suit, that they refuse to believe their own eyes which are telling them there is nothing there. It takes a child to shatter everyone’s delusion by shouting out, “the emperor is not wearing anything at all!”

This is what is happening within almost every discussion of the school choice debate, but most glaringly when the talk turns to funding.  Opponents have yelled so loudly about state aid and per pupil amounts that our focus has shifted from letting families decide what type of education is best for their students, to how we can protect the educational establishment.  As we've asked before, is the state’s goal to fund the education of students or just fund the education system?

But just as the child who realized that the emperor really has no clothes, there are people looking at the bigger picture.  Chief among those people is Governor Kim Reynolds.  Going back to this year’s Condition of the State address, the governor recognized that, “for some families, the school district doesn’t fit their values or meet the needs of their child.”  This debate isn’t confined to Iowa’s borders, either.  Garret Ballengee is executive director of the Cardinal Institute in West Virginia.  That state passed the most comprehensive educational choice bill in the country in 2021.  Mr. Ballengee explained why choice was so important in his state:

It is for all students and families, regardless of a family’s ability to pay, to have access to education options. We value choice in pretty much all other aspects of our lives, but we neglected to realize that in the K-12 education system in West Virginia.  It really doesn’t matter if a school is among the best in the country…the fact is that even the finest schools will not work well for every kid. West Virginia needed to strive for an education system that offers options as unique as students, and there is only one way to cultivate those options: choice.

The education establishment uses the chaos of our daily lives to misdirect our collective focus.  It’s not difficult to see how certain talking points become widely accepted and cemented into place (much like the splendor of the emperor’s new clothes), especially if they initially sound benevolent.  All of us justifiably desire good schools and good teachers and good communities, which all take more money, right?  Who has time to dig into the complicated school finance formula and all its sources of funding?  Or who has stopped to consider their property tax bills, since the bank writes that check for most of us? Who has ever considered that what the state spends on each student is really only 1/3 of all the dollars that go into public education?

But sometimes we hear that pesky child shouting about the emperor’s clothes!  A few questions break through the rest of the noise, and they should make us pause.  Why are my kids being asked for their political affiliations and their pronouns at school?  What can we do when schools are rewriting American history? Are there any options when what’s being taught at school is at odds with what’s being taught at home? Why can’t I have a say about how my tax dollars are used to educate my child?  Why can we use state funds for private colleges but not private high schools?

Alas, the educational establishment will keep shouting down the questions we all should be asking, while trying to convince us to cheer for the emperor’s new clothes.